It’s a source of amazement to anyone who has ever tried to get fit that it takes months to build up fitness, yet you can lose it in a matter of weeks. Or days.
Several factors can determine why for whatever reason you can’t keep up your training regime – holiday, injury, and other commitments - yet inevitably you have to almost start from scratch to get back in to it again.
It can be disheartening when you’ve worked so hard to build up your fitness – so exactly how long does it take to lose it?
How quickly you lose fitness can depend on several things. These include how fit you are already, how long you’ve been exercising for, and how long you’ve taken a break for.
There is a term for losing fitness when you stop training –it’s called detraining, or deconditioning. Put in simple terms it just means that when we stop training we begin to lose condition and our strength and aerobic fitness decreases.
We can’t all exercise all the time – there are instances when we need a break, and in a lot of cases if it’s just a short rest then there will be no real decline in fitness, but when it interferes with a training regime longer term, most people will see a decline in condition levels.
Studies have looked at the rate of deconditioning for athletes, and that of beginning athletes and the rate of detraining is quite different. For fit athletes who have been regularly training for a year, if they stop exercising entirely then after three months researchers found they’d lost around half of their aerobic conditioning.
Another study followed beginner exercisers as they started a training program and then stopped exercise. Researchers took individuals who lived sedentary lifestyles and put them on a bicycle fitness regime for two months. During that time they made dramatic cardiovascular improvements and their aerobic capacity was boosted considerably. They then stopped exercising altogether for the next two months and they were found to have lost all their aerobic gains and returned to their fitness levels before the study had begun.
Of course, in most instances it’s not that you stop exercising altogether, rather that you cut down your level of training. One study found that with sedentary men who took on three months of strength training, three times a week, when they cut back to one session per week there was little lost fitness, and they retained most of the gains they had developed through strength work in the first three months.
Although there are so many variables as to how long it will take you to lose your fitness, it’s fairly well known that it takes less time to lose fitness than it does to build it up. By stopping exercise altogether for two or more months then it’s likely you will lose your fitness. But if you can keep up some high intensity training for at least part of the week, then it’s unlikely to affect your fitness levels too dramatically.
Some studies have shown that you can maintain your fitness level even if you need to change or cut back on you exercise for several months, but in order for this to work you need to exercise at about 70 percent of maximum exercise output, at least once per week.
If you fear you might have to stop your training plan, then it’s best to have a contingency in place. Try not to cut down altogether, but instead try and think of exercises that will fit in around your changing circumstances. For example if you’ve been running 3 miles every day for the past three months, but you have to drop that, then try something like circuits in the back garden, and maybe a run just once a week. If you are injured, then cross train – this means you can still work on cardio and strength work, just by leaving out the part that’s injured. If you’re travelling then you might have to get a bit clever about your training plan. Take weights with you, or an exercise band. Make use of hotel gym facilities and use the pool.
If you are really limited on time then make the training you have time for really high intensity. Increase the level of weights, do more reps of circuits and plyometrics. Remember as well that sometimes it’s crucial to take a break. You might be doing yourself more damage than good if you start overtraining – putting more strain on your joints and heart. This is especially important for beginners, who need to ease their way into an exercise regime. So often people are too eager to go too fast too soon, and this sadly can end in injury and a total loss of fitness. Overall though, don’t be afraid to alter your training programme, because in the long run, doing something is far better than doing nothing.